Last Night's TV: Marco's Great British Feast, ITV1
Celebrity Masterchef, BBC1
He could do with a slice of humble pie
Thursday 03 July 2008
"How do I make a fish pie in 15 minutes, aggravation-free? It's very simple." Yeah, well it is if you're Marco Pierre White. Your food stylist has already prepped all the main ingredients. The baby leeks have been washed and trimmed, the cheese grated, the fish neatly filleted and a cumulonimbus of downy mash is waiting ready to be spooned over the top of the assembled pie. No dirty pans, no steamy kitchen and no bloody aggravation, unless, that is, you get wound up by celebrity chefs pontificating airily about how easy cooking can be. How did I get this cross, though? We're not very far into Marco's Great British Feast and already I'm simmering away like a pint of double cream on the back burner. I've simply taken against him, in the way that one sometimes does when watching a television presenter, but since there's another 700 words to go I can't just throw the zapper at the screen and calm down. I've got to try and pin down why.
The rhetorical questions don't help, I think, a pompous tic that momentarily seems to imply that your opinion might actually be of interest to the questioner and then slams a door in your face by making it clear that his answer is the only one that matters. "Had I gone on this journey 10 years ago, would I have given them a say?" Marco asked, explaining that his quest for a purely British menu would include listening to the opinions of humble punters. "The answer is no," he concluded (though in the event, the difference between 10 years ago and today turned out to be not nearly as great as he was implying). Where some television presenters convey the feeling that they can't wait to share their enthusiasm with you, Marco effectively suggests that you're going to just have to sit still until he's finished what he's got to say. There's a flat, my-way-or-the-highway tone to his delivery that is mildly disconcerting at first but mounts to outright irritation, particularly if you're reckless enough to actually listen to what he's saying. "What better way of celebrating their life than by eating them?" he asked at one point, after shooting the main ingredients for his rabbit stockpot. I think rabbit's delicious, but even I could see that there were answers the rabbit might prefer.
What really got up my nose, though – lodged painfully up somewhere around the sinuses – was the programme's grandiose suggestion that it was in the vanguard of a culinary revolution, rather than belatedly bringing up the rear. "I am putting myself out there to fight for what I believe in," said Marco, as the opening credits showed him stalking across the South Downs to plant a giant Union flag on Beachy Head. The implication was that it was down to Marco to battle the shameful neglect of native bounty. "Every chef in Britain wants to go French," he said in tones of exasperation. "I don't get it." He must know that this isn't true, that there's actually been a great resurgence in domestic cooking recently, led by virtually every chef except Marco Pierre White, whose fidelity to French technique and style is well known. And if his belligerent self-regard had blinded him to that fact, the producers of the series were surely well aware that the road they were travelling had already been exhaustively mapped by Rick Stein in his Food Heroes programmes or the regional chefs competing in the BBC's Great British Menu series.
"What I'm looking for is realness," Marco had promised us at the outset. "I want realness on the plate, I want realness of the produce and I want realness of people's views." But it turned out that only views that were really approving were welcome. After a group of food historians gave his first trial dishes a lukewarm reception, Marco – with a graciousness that appears to be entirely characteristic of him – tore up the comments on camera and dismissed the group with an insult. "They looked like the Addams family," he muttered sulkily. He's a genius in the kitchen, though. He should get back in there.
Very few of the competitors in Celebrity MasterChef seem to have caught up with the British food movement yet, still getting all Pacific Rim and fusion the moment the ingredients will permit them. Indeed, the closest we got to a home-grown recipe last night was Joe McGann cooking colcannon. This series can irritate a little, too, usually when it artificially stacks the odds against a stand-out contestant so that it won't look like too much of a foregone conclusion, as they did with Andi Peters last night. But it does at least give some sense of what it is like to cook for real, assailed by lunatic inspirations and learning to live with the distressing gap between what you imagine the finished dish might look and taste like and the compromised reality that actually ends up on the plate.
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